12th March 2023
A talk given to St Michael’s Highgate as they set out to become a green church.
Thank you for inviting me here to speak to you today.
Water is one of those things that you only realise how much you need it, when you haven’t got it. Certainly that was the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness. Being a slave in Egypt hadn’t necessarily been fun, but at least there was always water to hand.
Some years ago we spent a year living in Zimbabwe. When we arrived there had already been several years of drought and water was rationed. We were allowed 50 litres of water a day per household and there were five of us. 10 litres a person – about two buckets. Any water that we didn’t drink was reused. Washing up water flushed the loo. Cooking water was used for the washing up. And how often do you need a shower? One thing you always remembered was to clean your teeth before you washed your pants!
Water is precious. Water is life. And without it, we die.
But do we notice when it is running out? Does the tap flash red like the petrol gauge on a car?
Last year we experienced a drought caused by high temperatures and a lack of rainfall that affected all the countries across Europe. Harvests of olives, wheat, rice, and even potatoes fell by a third. Homes were consumed by forest fires. Here in England our green and pleasant land was reduced to the colour of sand. In the Alps glaciers are receding at an alarming rate. These are Europe’s frozen reservoirs which – in the past – ensured water throughout the summer. As they shrink and disappear, so the rivers they fed disappear. This winter snowfall in the French Alps is down by 63%. In February south east England received a mere 6% of its normal rainfall. We are entering the 2023 growing season with a decided lack of water.
Water – you only realise how much you need it when you haven’t got it.
In Genesis 2, God contemplates the barren earth and notes the absence of water needed to make things grow. So God causes a spring to gush up and water the whole earth. Then God takes some of the earth and moulds into the first being – an earthling named Adam. And God instructs Adam to till and tend, to care and protect the garden of Eden. Thus the first role given to humans is to be God’s gardeners. God took some more of the earth and created all manner of creatures to help with this task of tilling and tending, of caring and protecting, the earth.
From this we should note two things.
First – we humans and all living beings are co related; we are made of the same substance; we are kin, brothers and sisters in God.
Second – all living beings have been created by God to care for the earth, to ensure that its verdant ecosystem flourishes.
This is something perhaps that we have overlooked. Without earthworms, without bees and pollinators, without birds to spread seeds, without badgers and pigs that rootle the earth, without the 101 creatures whose poo manures the soil, would we have life on earth? Would we have plants and flowers, trees and forests, grasslands and meadows?
And don’t forget the whale!
The whale is an amazing creature. In the sea there are tiny beings called phytoplankton. They are the ocean’s equivalent of green leaves converting sunlight into edible energy and releasing oxygen into the water. Phytoplankton are eaten by slightly bigger beings – plankton and plankton form the diet directly or indirectly of all other sea creatures, including whales. Now phytoplankton needs iron, but iron doesn’t appear naturally in the water. Problem? No because of the whale! Or rather because of the whale’s poo which is rich in iron! And as the whale swim up and down in the oceans so it continually redistributes important minerals such as iron. The whale is fulfilling perfectly God’s injunction to till and tend the earth!
As you can see from this tale of the whale, we live in a highly complex, intricate and amazing ecosystem. Yet it is only belatedly that we humans have come to realise that we have not measured up well as promoters and protectors of life on earth – rather we have rather been its destroyers.
Wild animals now account for only 4% of the world’s mammal population. We humans account for 34% of global mammal biomass whilst our livestock accounts for a staggering 62% ! In other words even we humans are outweighed by all the cows, sheep, pigs etc that we keep to feed ourselves. We humans are completely transforming the pattern of life on earth.
Not only have we replaced two thirds of the wild animals with domesticated stock, we are killing off so many different species – birds, insects, trees, plants, fish, and animals – that we are triggering the world’s sixth mass extinction of life on earth.
We are also the cause of climate change on a scale never before seen in human history. Since the days of Moses, 3000 BCE until the 19th century, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere hovered around the 250 parts per million.
In the 19th century as the west industrialised, CO2 concentrations rose towards the 300 mark. There was some warming of the atmosphere but within the bounds that the ecosystem could accommodate.
Come the 20th century with more countries are using fossil fuels, CO2 emissions continue to rise, but now at a faster rate. By1970 CO2 concentrations passed the safe 350 PPM limit. From then on we have been filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide at a faster rate than the earth’s ability to absorb it. Using the analogy of a bath, the CO2 flowing into the bath is doing so at a faster rate that it can escape through the plug hole.
Global temperatures are rising rapidly adding large amounts of energy to weather systems around the world, triggering droughts in one region, floods in another, heat waves and cold snaps, and far more frequent and intense storms. Last year was not an exception but an indicator of the future. It is this change of weather patterns that is the root cause of the droughts we are now experiencing.
Will this lack of water turn us back to God? Will it prompt us to focusing on God’s command that we should tend and care for the earth? Will it focus us on the commandment Jesus gave that we should love our neighbour – both human and creaturely?
I was invited to speak to you today because as a church you have discerned that you have a calling to be a ‘Green Church’. I salute you!
You are beginning a journey just as were the Israelites when Moses led them out of slavery. Like the Israelites, you are beginning a journey of discovery and adventure, of challenge and joy. You will discover new ways of living. You will discover new ways of trusting in God, and new ways of relating to your neighbour. You will learn the joy of being God’s gardeners.
I was asked to suggest some practical actions that you can take as first steps – and I’ll give you three.
First, change the way you eat. Green Christian has produced a very simple nemonic to help us choose a more sustainable diet. LOAF – local organic animal-friendly fairly traded. Use this as you guide when you’re shopping, when you’re planning meals, and when you are serving food at church.
Second, zero waste. The earth’s resources are finite. The ability of the earth to absorb pollution is finite. We can’t afford to waste anything. Before you go shopping, think what it is you need?
Could you reuse or repair what you already have? Could you reuse something someone else no longer needs? Before you buy, consider the packaging? Is it superfluous? Is it going to go straight in the bin? Can it be recycled? And what about the thing you are buying – will happen to it when it comes to the end of its life? Can it be reused, repurposed or recycled? Or will it linger somewhere polluting the earth?
Thirdly, active travel. Active travel is what we do when we walk or cycle. It’s good for us physically and mentally. Active travel is closely aligned with public transport – together they protect the environment, reduce air pollution and carbon emissions, and reduce our consumption of resources. If you can walk or cycle there, do it. If you can get there by bus or tube, then do it. If you can get there by train and sleeper, then do it. If you can avoid flying, then do it – and why not sign the flight free pledge?
I offer you these as first steps. I say first steps as you will find that you hit many obstacles to greening the way you live. You will soon realise that what we also need is system change. For example we need a public transport system that enables and encourages people to use public transport. We need a tax system that doesn’t favour air flights over train journeys. We need an energy system that produces renewable energy, that insulates homes and subsidises the replacement of gas boilers. But you will not be alone. A lot of other Christians are pushing for system change, including those in Green Christian and those supporting Christian Climate Action. And to that end I warmly invite you to come along to The Big One 21st to 24th April in Parliament Square and join the 100,000 others calling on the government to tackle the climate crisis.